B’Shalach (and Yitro): Set the vision, keep communicating, delegate work, and let your people succeed



Editor’s Note: This is the the address that Barbara Saidel, URJ’s Chief Operating Officer, made at the 2013 WRJ Fried Leadership Conference.

“I’m tired!”
“I’m hungry!”
“Are we there yet?”

How many times have you heard these complaints? You recognize the sounds of the kids, nudgedick in the back seat, anxious to free themselves from the car’s confines and to discover their destination. And then the journey ends, you  arrive, and they are so excited. They celebrate their “freedom” and, for a short time at least, they stop from the complaining and fighting that plagued you during the car ride.

And then, the newness and the celebration wear off, and you, the parent, confront anew the reality of boredom, disappointment, arguments, misunderstandings, and challenges from them that test your leadership and your creativity.

This is exactly where this week’s parsah, B’shalach, finds  Moses and the Israelites in their trek through the desert on the way to the Promised Land.

A quick summary: The Israelites left Egypt, and God took them on a roundabout route, so they wouldn’t be disheartened and turn back, which made them fearful as they saw the Egyptians pursuing them. “Did you take us out of Egypt to die in the desert?” they whined. They dramatically, miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds, only to complain about thirst, hunger, and thirst again. Moses, the charismatic but sometimes hesitant and often uncertain leader, repeatedly asks God how to respond to their complaints. Each time, God instructs him to deliver a miracle to satisfy the Israelites and affirm their faith in this new direction, their mission, and their eventual deliverance. Moses holds out his staff to part the Sea, he sweetens the waters at Marrah, and strikes a rock so that water will flow from it.

At the Sea of Reeds, God hardens the hearts of the Egyptians so that they continue pursuing the Israelites. God is thus able to show his might, smite the Egyptians, glorify Himself, and convince the Israelites that they should have faith in God’s protection. The Egyptians willingly enter the Sea and drown. The Israelites celebrate, Moses sings a song of praise to God, and Miriam repeats the verse, and leads the women in song and dance.

Let’s think about Moses’ usual leadership style: founded in words and rationality. Daniel Kahnemann, Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist calls this “slow thinking,” thinking that is rational and thorough. Some might think of it as Left Brain leadership. In contrast, Miriam, here called prophetess for the first time, uses what Kahnemann calls “fast thinking,” and what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence,” to connect with the emotional needs of the people to celebrate, not with words, but with music and dance. By dancing in that way, they become a community, not with slow thinking, not with the left brain, but with emotional connection to each other.

Which style is better? More effective? This story demonstrates that both aspects of leadership are necessary, because people respond in ways that are informed by their personality, their experience and the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is helpful for a leader to recognize which leadership style—which aspect of communication and celebration—is most appropriate at a given moment for the community they lead. That flexibility, that ability to have a repertoire and not just one default style is a true gift some leaders have. Not everyone, of course, can switch leadership styles. If, like Moses and Miriam, one leader can’t do both, it is especially helpful to have others nearby—an associate director, or vice chair, or first vice president—who will see things differently than you do, and approach the communication, motivation and management from a different perspective.

Just a few short weeks later, the Israelites are grumbling again, this time over their hunger.

So what is the lesson, for us as leaders? First, you must always be looking forward and not resting on your laurels. Even if you have a vision, communicate that vision, and organize people to move forward toward achieving it. Simultaneously, you must constantly take the pulse of the people you are leading and understand where their heads are. And that is an ever-changing dynamic. It requires both the rational side of our leadership skills, and the emotional intelligence to understand their fears, anticipate and be sensitive to their insecurities, their evolving confidence and abilities, and the competing demands on their time and attention. As great as things may be right now, tomorrow there will be new challenges and complaints, people will forget what they are trying to accomplish, and you will need to remind them again–and again and again–in various ways, what you are trying to achieve, how to get there, and why it matters.

And that takes time. And energy. There is never enough opportunity to be the visionary leader who over-communicates and identifies other potential leaders. Like Miriam, these partners can complement our leadership style, find other ways to build relationships, shore up the vision and the mission, and develop the loyalty and commitment to the cause that you have set for yourselves.

Furthermore, those who are on the fringes, complaining, often have something really important to communicate to you, the leader. You need them. You need to listen, and you need to include them in developing both the solutions and implementation. Only by including everyone—not just the loudest or nearest or friendliest—will your next steps represent the constituents where they are. Without those complainers, leaders can lose touch with their constituents and miss the important messages they carry.

As someone with an MBA and a long career in management, I cannot miss the opportunity to add a word about next week’s parsha: Yitro. Yitro captures a long day as Israelites come before Moses for judgments and decisions on legal matters. We learn here the importance of delegation as Moses spends many hours on the details of every conflict among the people. Don’t try to do everything yourself, Yitro teaches. Save for yourself to set the vision and direction, and to explicate the laws and instructions. Then create an organization to whom you can delegate the bulk of the work. He says, “You must set over the people, chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties and chiefs of tens so that they may judge the people at all times.” Alleviate the burdens of leadership by letting others bear it with you. Choose people of caliber, and let them deal with issues; they should only refer to you for difficult decisions or ambiguous situations.

Here in our Torah, not from Wharton or Harvard business school, but from Yitro, do we learn one of the most important management lessons: identify the right people, aligned with your vision and mission, to implement that vision. Delegate with an open hand, not withholding real authority to execute. Only require that ambiguous or difficult decisions be referred to the senior-most person. A great lesson. Not only does this approach free you to tackle the greatest challenges, it also helps you keep your mind on the long game, keeping you out of the day-to-day. And you’ll also develop new leaders behind you. Delegation is a great avenue for leadership development and succession planning.

So, before I close, I’d like to take a moment to offer you my congratulations on 100 years of training women leaders! Experience leading sisterhoods is an important opportunity for leadership development, for advocacy, and for networking and building relationships with incredible women.

President Obama reminded us last Monday that “our journey is not yet complete.” Like Elka, I found his reference to “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall,” very moving,

The President reminded us in his speech of both how much has been achieved and how much remains to be done, to improve our country and our world. WRJ, especially with your current leaders, Rabbi Marla Feldman and Lynn Magid Lazar, has an incredible opportunity to continue shaping the Reform Movement, actively leading in your advocacy on matters of critical importance to women, and in living the values we affirm. Whether universal health insurance, gun control, equal rights and equal pay for all people, or reinforcing and publicizing our commitment to women’s reproductive rights, I encourage you to set the vision for the Movement’s future, as you have done in the past with the founding of NFTY, the development of the YES fund, scholarships to camp, and all the other issues in which you HAVE LED and continue to lead the movement in advocacy and Tikkun Olam.

In this, WRJ’s Centenary Year, you are modeling leadership for our entire Movement, and beyond:

  • By Looking forward;
  • By Not resting on your (significant!) achievements;
  • By Modeling different leadership styles;
  • By Ensuring that our emotional as well as rational sides are raised up and honored;
  • By Listening to all the voices in the community; and
  • Never tiring in your pursuit of justice, peace and equality.

You carry the legacy of both Moses and Miriam Ha Naviah, leading not only with the mind, but with the heart as well.  I am honored to be sharing this weekend with you all.

Shabbat Shalom.

Barbara Saidel is Chief Operating Officer of the Union for Reform Judaism, where she focuses on the URJ’s underlying business strategies in order to deliver programs and services in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.

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